Calvin College

CALVIN - Minds in the Making

Strengthening Liberal Arts Education by Embracing Place and Particularity

Case Study

Food For Thought: Global Health, Environment, and Sustainability


Food is central to our existence and survival, and that of all people, but its supply is increasingly distant from the experience and understanding of many people.  Urbanization has spatially separated vast numbers of people from their food source, a culture of food production, and possibly an appropriate concept of the value of food.  Yet, as Jared Diamond (2005) eloquently describes in his book “Collapse”, the inability of major cultures like the Mayans, Khmer, and Anasazi to survive is strongly linked with the loss of food production capacity due to such issues as deforestation, soil erosion, and loss or overuse of sufficient fresh water supply.  One goal of Biology 364, Global Health, Environment, and Sustainability, is to provide context of what healthful food is, where it comes from, and what it takes to produce it, and how the various activities involved impact the quest of a society to become more sustainable.

The “Food For Thought” project of Biology 364 represents an effort to connect largely urban students with the source of food in the context of sustainability issues and to improve their sense of “ecological literacy”.  Orr (1992) recounts the loss of ecological literacy in our generation, for example the failure to recognize linkages like the color of stream water and food supply, and the risks this lack of understanding poses as a voting and consuming public faces ever growing environmental issues on local and global scales.  He further suggests this loss of ecological perspective is due in part to students being taught that ecology is unimportant for history, politics, economics, and society.  It seems highly advantageous, then, to consider the spectrum of food and food-related issues and their connectedness with health, nutrition, environment, and justice issues in the context of a liberal arts curriculum where the costs and benefits of an action as simple fertilization can be seen on food quantity, environmental quality, and recreational opportunities of a largely urban public.

By grappling with direct and externalized costs of food production (Tegtmeier and Duffy, 2004), by personally observing food production process in a specific place and with common people, students are challenged to rationalize their preconceptions about the interplay between human and environmental health issues, economic models and social systems.  The desired outcome is a clearer understanding of what the real issues are, what trade-offs are apparent in an effort to become more sustainable, and eventually what consequences might be associated with application of a developed country’s food production paradigm to that of a developing country.


Next: Context